"Good counselling is just excellent communication skills! Or is it?"Authors:Ms Merrelyn BatesMr Paul StevensonABSTRACTThere have been arguments about whether counselling is a new profession while other establishedprofessions engage in similar practices and have a legitimacy of their own. Theoreticalframeworks for professional counselling are discussed with an emphasis on practice, values andprofessional ethics. The suggestion that effective counselling is simply effective communication isdiscussed and it is argued that a unifying basis can only be derived from the assumptionsunderlying the practice of counselling rather than the theory which informs it.
"Good counselling is just excellent communication skills! Or is it?"IntroductionWithin the last ten years there has been a growth in the number of people offering their services ascounsellors. Many have a professional background in either psychiatry, psychology or socialwork, but many more, including school guidance counsellors, community nurses, ministers ofreligion, medical practitioners and others, are beginning to include counselling as part of theiractivities.Only within the last few years have tertiary institutions developed specific undergraduate degreesin counselling outside the usual recognised professional frameworks. Currently a youngoccupational group of counsellors are developing processes for registration as a recognisedprofession and are finding that they must compete with other established groups. Although we cancomplain that elitism and exclusion are alive and well in the so-called helping professions, thetensions are actually healthy because issues of practice, professionalism and accountability arebeing addressed. It is out of this debate that a clear basis for professionalism can be established.There is a perception that counselling is just the effective management of very goodcommunication skills in a one to one situation and that anyone who communicates well can put uptheir shingle and commence a practice. The more established professions who have traditionallyengaged in counselling have a history that lends weight to their perceived legitimacy: psychiatristscan argue from a medical model that they understand the physical and the mental interrelationshipswithin a person; psychologists claim that their study of individuals has a scientific base and sotheir methods contribute to the mental, behavioural and emotional well-being of their clients; andsocial workers believe in social justice, empowerment, and the promotion of human dignity. Sowhere does that leave the rest of the counsellors? They are just well intentioned people being verygood communicators - aren’t they?Theoretical frameworksWhen we look for theoretical frameworks we find that both communication and counselling arebecoming identified as their own distinct disciplines. In fact, pick up any communication text tofind what it is all about and you will discover that the first chapter or two is likely to be devoted totheories and models of communication. Many texts provide a historical perspective which takesthe reader from the engineering models associated with the telecommunications industry of the1940s, through the contribution of psychology which highlighted the importance of perception,emotion and non-verbal signals in the 60s and 70s, to the work of sociologists and social theoristswho contributed further to the understanding of communication in the 80s because of theiremphasis on language, culture and political meanings (shifting the focus from the sender of themessage to the message itself). The 90s have had a focus on the importance of audience who bringtheir own expectations and prejudices and Mohan, McGregor, Saunders and Archee (1997) haveindicated that information technology will be the focus of future communication theoreticaldevelopments in the 21st century.
2Thus Communication or Communications has become an important area of study according to thedemands of various disparate interest groups and specialist expertise in communication isbecoming highly valued. Should we as counsellors identify ourselves as good communicators andclaim "communication" as the centre of our work - or is there more to it than that? Both of thewriters of this article agree that training in communication skills is an important and developingarea with a lot to offer industry, education, the justice system and the community at large. Indeed,we have spent a number of years devising and running programs in communication at universitylevel and we recognise the disturbing limitations that a bunch of theories which include bothtechnological and interpersonal aspects of the subject, as if they are one and the same thing, beingpeddled as acceptable truth. We are becoming alarmed that these mechanistic theories tend todepersonalise the individual and to reify models which reduce the person to merely a collection ofroles and the 'communicator' as a replaceable functionary in a system of 'interpersonal interaction'.The theoretical frameworks for counselling have been recognised for a greater period and, despiteinternal debates, represents a much more unified body of knowledge (see for example McGowan &Schmidt, 1962). Discussions about 'interpersonal communication' have been primarily groundedwithin the psychiatric model and initially was particularly influenced by psychoanalytic theoristssuch as Freud, Jung and Adler. Although it is quite easy to find critics of Freud particularlyamongst those who have been influenced by the behaviour therapy movement it is important togive him credit for the ideas which inform current practice. He invented what we now callcounselling, and revolutionised the treatment for those suffering emotional and mental distress.Prior to the use of Freud's methods, quite controversial at the time, people were either “locked-up”or provided with a straight medical response. Those clients who were not physically ill or a dangerto others but who were just managing their distress were referred to priests or ministers of religionfor solace.Since Freud's contribution there has been a proliferation of alternative models of counselling. Tolist and explain them all would be more than one article but there are certainly a number who cometo mind quite quickly. Where would counselling be without the developments promoted by CarlRogers and his person-centered focus, Albert Ellis and his focus on rational emotive behaviouralcounselling, and Aaron Beck for his cognitive focus? Other names which have contributed greatlyto the developments in counselling techniques include Virginia Satir, William Glasser, GerardEgan, Eric Berne, Robert Carkhuff, and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. There are many others but all ofthese are counsellors who have communicated their professional expertise in a popular manner.Having noted that there is a history to both communication and counselling it is important torecognise that theoretical frameworks, and the models that have been developed, arise from verydifferent starting points. Counselling frameworks are fundamentally grounded in the need toalleviate personal and interpersonal distress; the focus is clear and whether the techniques arerequired to manage a crisis situation or to respond to a lack of self esteem the purpose of theprofessional intervention is agreed upon by all who are involved. On the other hand,communication theories and models have not been developed as a response to a single catalyst. Ina pot pourri of discourse we can see there is a focus on people but the whole knowledge basesurrounding the study of communication is quite amorphous and it is clear that the theoreticalframeworks for communication and counselling are different, each being a reflection of their ownsystemic origins.
3Practice and responsibilitiesBecause counselling has one over-riding purpose - to alleviate personal and interpersonal distress the counsellor requires a knowledge base which includes awareness of self, awareness of values, arange of communication strategies, and an understanding of contextual influences which willdetermine the direction taken and the therapeutic plan which is developed. In particular thecounsellor needs to be able to understand and then harness the counsellor-client relationship sothat the client is able to learn and then risk experimenting with new communicative strategies in hisor her own life space. The counsellor must become a teacher of communication skills (Carkhuff &Berenson, 1976) and since the starting point for the client’s learning must always be his own selfunderstanding, the initial focus will almost always be on the real and current interpersonalrelationships and the communication difficulties inherent in them.Bearing this in mind it is clear that people who are excellent and effective communicators will notnecessarily be effective counsellors. True, they will have an understanding of the dynamics ofinterpersonal relationships and have a strong intuitive understanding of the behavioural elementswhich contribute to effective communication but without training they will not be communicatingwithin a framework which is solely focused on the clients, their vulnerability, and the appropriateoutcome plans.Concepts, contexts and skillsA client presents in a context in which there are a lot of variables and his dysfunctions will bedirectly related to one or more of them. The question is, which elements of the client’s context arerelevant to the problem and what are the most pertinent concepts and skills that he needs to betaught in order to cope more effectively? The counsellor needs a conceptual map of the client'spersonal life space if she is to equip him with the appropriate skills. She must pay particularattention to the client’s existing interpersonal skills, assess his strengths, and then help him restatethe problem making the concepts cognitively meaningful and relevant in the process. Only thencan the client act to improve his own communication skills. Action always follows realunderstanding and understanding without action is not really understanding at all.ConceptsThe counsellor must decide early in the proceedings what level of cognitive complexity isappropriate for the client so she can help him look at his problem differently and develop new waysof coping. But she is unable to do anything without an appropriate set of concepts and an adequatelanguage with which she can express what the client cannot. It is these concepts that allowcounsellors to deal with the complexity of client responses and often they will need to have severaldifferent theoretical frameworks in order to meet the range of problems presented. One client in acrisis may require a highly directive behavioural approach early on in the crisis whereas anotherwhose problems are of a more existential nature will benefit more from a highly Rogerian “handsoff” approach.
4Effective counsellors must not be uncomfortable with the problems people have, and they need todevelop an intuitive ability to respond appropriately and at the right level of concreteness andsimplicity in the counselling session. They need to come to the encounter with an in-depthunderstanding of concepts like empathy, unconditional regard, immediacy, respect andconfrontation. Above all they need to have an understanding of the different levels of genuineness.They need to know that although it is essential to mean what you say in a therapeutic relationship(a client can see through pretence in a flash), sometimes the full disclosure of all the counsellor’sfeelings in the encounter will not be appropriate. Only when the therapeutic relationship is welldeveloped is it likely that counsellor and client will explore their own feeling responses to eachother in-depth and with very high levels of genuineness.Lastly the counsellor needs a set of theoretical concepts about personality. Freud’s notion of theunconscious and Jung’s expansion of that into a deep understanding of the meanings of myth,symbol and ritual in everyday life must be coupled with an understanding of the various forms ofpsychopathology, and of the medical and social components presented by clients. They also needto understand the concepts behind different procedural schools of thought including behaviourtherapy and the reframing associated with rational emotive therapy; the effective counsellor needsto be able to use any of these concepts when the situation demands it. The client’s confusion mustbe interpreted into a language which he can comprehend and the counsellor must be able to selectan appropriate model so that he can understand his problems as they are explored and reframed.ContextsIt is not only the concepts that counsellors need - they must also be aware of the wide rangingcontexts from which their clients come. These contexts are so varied that each one carries with it asystemic view of the world or a way of describing the world in its own jargon. A person may be inthe middle of a crisis involving their own previous child abuse while another is in crisis over thestress resulting from a potential bankruptcy. Each client will be expressing their distress ordiscomfort in a jargon that relates to what they perceive to be the context of their problems and thecounsellor needs to be able to respond. Quite reasonably this need to understand the dynamics of anumber of complex social contexts has led to the appropriate specialisation which currently existsin various fields of counselling. There is a tendency for some counsellors to define themselves andtheir expertise in terms of a particular psychological or psychotherapeutic school of thought. Itwould be a pity to see the counselling movement in Australia fragment into various theoretical orconceptual specialisations, and there is no need for counsellors to become identified as a cognitivebehaviourist, rational emotive therapist or psychoanalyst, etc. when in truth the concepts overlapand often divert attention from the central issue which is contextual. A person may come to see acounsellor because their child has a drug problem and they want to know what to do: they havenot come for psychoanalysis, they have come to counselling for an understanding and assistancewith a drug problem within the context of juvenile addiction. Our purpose is not to dig up to thepast, it is to deal with the present.
5Counsellors not only require an effective foundation in communication, they also need know aboutthe dynamics of addiction, sexual abuse, domestic violence, issues of power, stress, lifestylechanges, depression, loss and grief, etc. Certainly some counsellors work in specific areas betterthan others do, but without a content knowledge of the forces operating they can not contributeconstructively to the improved well-being of another; they may be able to be empathic andsupportive but when it comes to point a client towards appropriate action they may be at acomplete loss.Counsellors must be able to travel with another's emotions as well as understand them. They musthave a clear view of cause and effect in context in order to relate effectively. Certainlyexperienced communicators may be able to respond intuitively but they do not necessarily have theknowledge of the context or concepts that will help them help others to move forward with anappropriate action plan. So, as far as concepts are concerned we are advocating that counsellorshave an eclectic approach that will use what are essentially metaphors for behaviour appropriate toa particular person with a particular problem.Does this lead to inconsistency and confusion? In Merrelyn’s counselling practice Eric Berne'spsychoanalytic material (Jongeward, & James, 1977; Berne, 1961) is frequently utilised to explainto individuals and couples the dynamics of language and its impact on their self-perceptions andinteractions with their partners, family members and others. Material developed by RobertCarkhuff (1969) is presented to help individuals and couples focus on qualities that will enhancetheir interactions. This same material is provided to students studying communication skills at theuniversity. This highlights an important point - while we are eclectic in regard to concepts we arenot eclectic when it comes to the counsellor’s skills.SkillsThese skills are non-negotiable and not open to compromise: all are necessary and whenunderstood and internalised form the value base for our profession. Although counselling isdescribed by different writers in different ways there is agreement on what follows.1. Effective counselling requires an understanding of self and a detailed awareness of the impact ofoneself on others.2. A counsellor needs to be equipped with advanced listening skills. They must be able torecognise the various levels of empathy of their responses, (i.e. reflecting an accurateunderstanding of the feeling being expressed by the client). It is necessary to develop the abilityto listen with an open mind, to refrain from judgemental responses and to actively check withthe client that the understanding of the feelings being expressed is correct.3. Counselling demands a process of negotiation and problem solving. A clear goal needs to be setso that the client is able to take appropriate action in their own life space and also to takeresponsibility for the consequences of their action.4. Self disclosure is a powerful tool that can be used by an effective communicator but when it isused within the constraints of the therapeutic encounter it needs to be done with considerablecare.
65. An understanding of the complexity of communication is a basic foundation within thedevelopment of an effective counselling framework. An ability to read, interpret and respondnon-verbally is critical. The use of conscious use of paralinguistic signals, postures andgestures to pace a distressed client for a sense of greater emotional self-control are just someexamples of skills required.6. Counselling will generally use a conversational style - as Eric Berne pointed out there is plentyleft if you remove the solemn face and the big words; counsellors need not be afraid ofordinariness.7. The effective counsellor requires the skills of assertiveness and the ability to confront a clientwhen it is therapeutically appropriate.8. Counsellors must be competent in their communication to be credible and must be able to selfmonitor - they must have the ability to concentrate their messages so that they are immediate(i.e. they relate to the here and now) and refer to concrete interpersonal issues.9. Finally, counsellors must recognise the impact of their own personal values, attitudes and selfesteem. The effective counsellor must develop and use the ability to model his or her behaviourfor the client; this is one of the most potent media for personal growth and change. This bringsus to the all important question of values.The question of valuesEach of us comes to the counselling encounter with a complex and hard-won set of values. Bothclient and counsellor will hold certain principles to do with interpersonal conduct. Not only thatbut counsellor and client may actually have different value systems. It is important to note thatanyone’s value system is likely to contain inherent contradictions; contradictions which if exposedcan result in high levels of anxiety and the need to grow. Inevitably the counselling encounter willbe dealing with the client’s inability to decide between possible causes of action and this will meanthat they will need to explore, and if necessary, modify their own value system. This in turn meansthat if the counsellor is to be at all helpful she must be able to enter the world of the client’s valuesystem so that she is able to understand potential sources of conflict. It is imperative that thecounsellor is able to do this non-judgementally: she needs to be able to entertain her own“disbeliefs” (i.e. values held by the client but not her) [Rokeach
"Good counselling is just excellent communication skills! Or is it?" Authors: Ms Merrelyn Bates Mr Paul Stevenson ABSTRACT There have been arguments about whether counselling is a new profession while other established professions engage in similar practices and have a legitimacy of their own. Theoretical frameworks for professional counselling are discussed with an emphasis on practice ...